Healthy eating for fussy kids: How to Get Your Kids to try a food more than once

Remember the time when peas were your child's worst enemy, and now they can’t get enough of them? There's a science to this transformation that we’re excited to share with you.

When meal time rolls around, do you find yourself bracing for the inevitable “…..I don’t like this” from your little ones? Even though they liked it last week. Or, they’ve never even tried it. “But you haven’t TRIED green beans. Can you take just one bite? Please???”  You're not alone. Many parents face the mealtime challenge of encouraging their children to try, and eventually enjoy, a diverse range of foods. But what if there were strategies to turn this challenge into an opportunity for growth and exploration? Grab yourself a bowl of green beans and dive into our healthy eating for fussy kids strategy blog.

“Much of picky eating may be related to negative thoughts and memories about certain foods, or eating in general. The more that you are upbeat and positive about eating, the more likely your child will be that way too.” - Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing.

Start early

Did you know the roots of picky eating often sprout early and tend to stick around? Studies observing kiddos from age 4 to 9 show that early bird picky eaters often don’t change their feathers quickly. This is a little nudge for parents to start broadening their little ones' food horizons early on, ideally before they hit the terrific twos – when that spirit of independence really… blossoms. The trick? Introduce a wide variety of foods as early as possible, especially a rainbow of fruits and veggies, clean proteins and healthy fats, and preferably in a range of textures. Skip the whole 'kids' meal' routine when they are little (eg. A meal that’s different and separate to yours) and invite your mini-me to join in on the family menu (just keep an eye out for any choking hazards, of course). And hey, if you're diving into a world of varied, adventurous flavours yourself, your tiny taste-tester is more likely to follow suit.

Understanding Picky Eating

It's important to understand that fussy eating is often a normal part of childhood development. It's a way for children to assert their independence and explore their environment, including their food. Child psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour explains, “Picky eating can be a child’s way of asserting their autonomy in a world where they have limited control.” Understanding this psychological aspect can shift our approach from frustration to empathy. And armed with this knowledge, we can start to form an empathetic strategy.

Strategy 1: Repeated Exposure

Repeated exposure is not just about serving the same food over and over. It's about presenting it indifferent ways. A carrot can be served raw, steamed, grated or in sticks with a healthy dip, or even incorporated into a muffin. This variety can spark curiosity and reduce the intimidation of the new food.

“Research says it takes eight to 15 times to introduce a new food before your child will accept it. Yet parents typically offer a food three to five times before deciding their child is never going to like it.” – Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Strategy 2: Fun and Games

Gamification of food tasting can significantly increase a child's willingness to try new foods. Consider creating a fun, colorful food passport where your child gets a stamp for each new food they try. Make it a celebration every time they add a new stamp to their passport. Thumsters Parenting App is another great tool for gamifying meal times in a healthy and positive way and recommended by many child psychologists and therapists. (We have included a free food passport printable at the end of this blog post!)

Strategy 3: Be a Role Model

Our own eating habits and attitudes towards food can deeply influence our children. If they see you enjoying a salad, or some healthy snacks, they’re more likely to try it too. Share with them why you like certain foods, the textures, and flavors that appeal to you, making the experience relatable and real. Encourage them to tell you what they like about different foods, meals and tastes. Encourage descriptive and fun language!

Strategy 4: Cook Together

Cooking with kids doesn’t have to be elaborate. Simple tasks like washing fruits, tearing lettuce for a salad, or mixing ingredients can be kid friendly, as well as fun and empowering. These activities give them a sense of contribution, pride and ownership in the meal.

Strategy 5: The Power of Storytelling

Use storytelling to bring foods to life. The broccoli might be little trees in a giant’s garden, or the lentils could be magic beans from an enchanted land. Perhaps you could have a tiny sword fight with those carrot or cucumber sticks! This narrative approach turns eating into an imaginative and adventurous act. You could even draw a picture together after dinner relating to the dinner story you made up together and colour it in. It’s all about turning food and meal times into fun and positive experiences to look forward to!

Additional Strategies

  • Create a Positive Mealtime Atmosphere: Ensure that mealtimes are stress-free and calm. A relaxed atmosphere encourages more openness to trying new foods. Try saving introducing a new taste or food for a night or weekend after a somewhat relaxing day…. Not after a full day at kindergarten and then a sibling’s sports practise after school, where people are more likely to be tired and rushed and overall just a bit more intolerant.
  • Set Realistic Expectations: Understand that progress may be slow and that’s okay. Celebrate the small steps along the way, Thumsters Parenting App is an excellent way of doing this by using positive recognition and reinforcement.
  • Offer Choices: Giving children a sense of control by letting them choose between two healthy options can increase their willingness to try new foods.

The Role of Patience

Each child's journey to embracing new foods is unique. Patience, coupled with persistence and understanding, is key. Remember, the goal is to nurture a lifelong positive and healthy relationship with food, not just to ‘get through’ a meal.  As fussy eating is more often than not an issue of control, yelling, forcing, or punishing your child for not trying a new food or finishing a meal, will often result in them asserting THEIR control more forcibly by refusing to put anything in their mouth.

If they refuse to eat, ask if they are finished and simply take their meal away and move forward with the day, preferably without providing them with an alternative meal. If they complain that they are still hungry, explain that dinner (or lunch, or snack etc) is finished for today but that they can have a big (healthy) breakfast, (or dinner, or whatever meal falls next in your day). Don’t escalate any tantrums with big feelings of your own. Stay calm and empathetic but hold firm to any boundaries you set.

Addressing SensorySensitivities

Some children have sensory sensitivities that make certain textures or flavors challenging. Being mindful and accommodating of these sensitivities can make food exploration less daunting for them. If you suspect your child has these sensitivities please have a chat to your doctor who can do any necessary investigations and offer medical support.

Incorporating NutritionalKnowledge

Educating children about the nutritional value of foods in an age-appropriate way can foster an interest in healthy eating. Explain how different foods can make them strong, help them run faster, or think better.

Embarking on the journey to expand your child’s palate requires a mix of creativity, patience, and a sprinkle of fun. It’s about turning the dinner table into a playground of tastes and textures. It’s absolutely a place to foster healthy communication and connection. For more ideas, strategies, and support, Thumsters Parenting App is your perfect companion. Our app offers a platform to track your child's food adventures and encourage them through positive recognition and reinforcement. Begin your free 2-week trial today and join a supportive community committed to raising happy, healthy, and adventurous eaters. Let’s make every bite an adventure!

Article Reference: Study gives insight — and advice — on picky eating in children

Blog posts on mealtimes, eating and behavior modification:

Feed Me, Feed Me Now

Behavior Loop: The Key to changing Child Behavior

Leveraging Technology to Address Challenging ChildBehavior